Canada

Old faces, new jobs

JOHN DeMONT June 23 1997
Canada

Old faces, new jobs

JOHN DeMONT June 23 1997

Old faces, new jobs

Canada

Introductions were hardly necessary. Of course, there were a few new faces among the federal cabinet ministers who emerged from the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall into the steaming Ottawa heat last week. And Prime Minister Jean Chrétien did give some old names different responsibilities. All told, though, 28 of the 36 cabinet members and junior ministers were part of the government’s inner circle before the June 2 election, which saw the Liberal’s healthy majority sliced to 155 seats—a scant four seats away from a minority government. Despite the scare the Liberals received on election day, the Prime Minister seemed happy with what he termed his “new” crew. “We have an excellent team to lead Canada into the new millennium,” he boasted to reporters after the ceremony. But amidst the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, at least one big question went unanswered: how will the same old politicians solve the bewildering array of problems that still loom ahead for their chastened government?

As usual, the makeup of the cabinet sent out unmistakable signals about the government’s priorities and intentions. In addition to Chrétien, there are 22 other Ontarians and Quebecers in the group, reflecting Liberal strength in the centre of the country. But the Grits also reached out to disenchanted western voters—nine of the 15 Liberal MPs elected west of Ontario were made cabinet ministers

or secretaries of state (junior ministers who do not have full cabinet rank). Victoria MP David Anderson took over Fisheries from Newfoundlander Fred Mifflin, a move applauded by B.C. Premier Glen Clark, who is facing an acrimonious battle with the United States over declining fish stocks. The highprofile position of justice minister also went to a westerner, Anne McLellan of Edmonton (page 26). An olive branch was held out to Atlantic Canada, where the Grits were dealt their sharpest election rebuke. Out of 11 MPs—down from 31 in the last government, including the loss of two ministers—four received cabinet posts.

Other choices drew less attention but could be no less significant. By leaving the key economic portfolios in the hands of fiscal conservatives—Paul Martin at Finance, John Manley in Industry and Marcel Massé at the Treasury Board—Chrétien is clearly resisting calls to start spending. Instead, aggressive deficit reduction will continue until the books are balanced, he suggested last week. The challenge of running a government with such a slim majority explained why Chrétien replaced a personal favorite, former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps, with the vastly more experienced Herb Gray. At the same time, Ontario francophone Don Boudria was promoted from the lowly post of minister of international co-operation to the key position of House Leader, where he will run the day-to-day operation of the Commons. But even with these changes, the precariousness of the Liberal majority means the government cannot let down its guard: failure to have enough Grits in Parliament at any particular time means the government could risk losing a non-confidence vote. For the immediate future, however, the animosity' among Reform, the Tories, the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois seems too deepseated for them to form an antigovernment front.

That does not mean, however, that the Liberals can afford to be complacent. Within the Liberal caucus, signs of strain are already beginning to show. At this point, no MPs have had the temerity to voice their complaints openly, as have grassroots Liberals outside Central Canada, who loudly blame the Prime Minister—or his team of political advisers—for the decline in party fortunes. “Chrétien has to resign halfway through the term and we need to get Paul Martin in there,” says one longtime Liberal work11 er in Calgary. “At least he is willing to listen to ideas. Chrétien has closed his mind to ideas.” And privately, MPs from the left wing of the party have argued that the 20 seats lost in Atlantic Canada prove it is time to stop cutting government expenditures and start spending again. Last week’s events probably did not make them feel any happier. Before the new cabinet was announced, a number of MPs suggested that the government was ready to move to the left and “be Liberal again.” But Chrétien, along with Martin, squelched that talk. “We’re on course,” reiterated Chrétien after a two-day cabinet retreat last week, “and we will maintain our target of having no deficit within two years.”

Still, there have been dramatic changes since June 2. For one, never before has a government faced four officially recognized parties. Last week provided a vivid demonstration of what lies ahead in the splintered Parliament. No sooner had the swearing-in ceremony ended, than the four opposition leaders trooped, one after the other, before the microphones in the National Press Theatre to take their shots at members of cabinet. It got personal when Reform Leader Preston Manning—whose 60-member caucus is drawn entirely from Western Canada—accused Anne McLellan of using patronage promises to cling to her Edmonton seat and warned her that his party will be watching her “like a hawk” for any political payoffs. A baffled McLellan simply called the broadside “amazing.”

Allan Rock, who had a rough ride during 3V2 years in the justice portfolio, is unlikely to find life any easier as minister of health, a job that came open after Cape Breton MP David Dingwall lost his seat. His central challenge:

Chrétien turns to trusted MPs for new cabinet

after years of cutting billions from the health-care system, he must help rebuild the Liberals’ reputation as a compassionate party, by saving the beleaguered medicare system and, as he promised last week, even expanding it with universal pharmacare and home-care programs. “He is a strong minister,” noted Dr. Judith Kazimirski, president of the Canadian Medical Association, “and I think this signals that health is a top priority.”

The message was less clear in Art Eggleton’s appointment as minister of the besieged department of national defence. Eggleton, previously international trade minister, told reporters he only learned he had inherited the portfolio—previously held by defeated New Brunswicker Doug Young — when Chrétien called and said, “Hello minister of defence.” Eggle-1 • ton likely will face his first hurdle

] f 10 \/y when the Somalia inquiry report,

expected to be a scathing indictment of the senior defence leadership, is released at the end of the month. Then there is the military’s poor morale and the shrinking defence budget.

Even in Atlantic Canada, the appointment of four cabinet members, including Alasdair Graham, who became government leader in the Senate after Alberta’s Joyce Fairburn stepped down to open up a seat for the cabinet’s only Nova Scotian, does not seem to have had the desired effect. Says Agar Adamson, a political science professor at Nova Scotia’s Acadia University: “The region is without a strong voice at the cabinet table.” A few new faces are one thing, but this remains a government with coast-to-coast problems.

JOHN DeMONT

DALE EISLER